Researchers at the University of Utah have developed a prosthetic arm that, through the use of brain-controlled robotics, has allowed a man to feel a sense of touch again.
The LUKE arm, inspired by Star Wars' character Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, has been developed over the past 15 years and connects to the user’s nerves that send signals back to the brain.
The man in question, Keven Walgamott, lost his arm below the elbow 17 years ago when an accident caused irreparable damage and required it to be amputated. He is now able to sense 119 different sensations with his new arm including differentiating between large and small objects and soft and hard objects. He can also handle items such as eggs and grapes without breaking or causing damage to the delicate items.
The prosthesis works by using microelectrodes, Utah Slanted Electrode Array (USER), being implanted into the patient's arm and connected to the nerves present there. These then communicate with a computer, 19 touch sensors and any remaining nerves to interpret touch signals and deliver back to the brain instructions to determine any movements the wearer wants to make. They are also able to determine if there are any pain or temperature changes present.
Gregory Clark, the University of Utah's biomedical engineering associate professor said “Just providing sensation is a big deal, but the way you send that information is also critically important, and if you make it more biologically realistic, the brain will understand it better and the performance of this sensation will also be better.”
The team are currently working on a portable version of the arm that won't need to be connected to an external computer to work.